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This blog post has been living in my head for some time. I’ve finally decided it is time to put in in writing. You see, among other things, my firm specializes in marketing clinical affiliations between academic medical centers and community hospitals. The affiliations we market bring real value to the patients of these community hospitals. Specialists and subspecialists from the academic medical centers leave the mother ship each week and travel to these suburban communities, where they see patients in the community in which they live. So, for example, families who live 30 miles north of Boston don’t have to drive into the city to have their child see a pediatric neurologist. Rather, they can see a specialist from one of Boston’s remarkable children’s hospitals in the community where they live. For a family with a seriously ill child, this care delivery model is of great value. It is a distributed care model where care is pushed out into the communities surrounding the medical center, rather than sucked into the mother ship. (Granted, some patients inevitably end up being treated at the academic medical center.)

However, as I said in the title of this post, not all clinical affiliations are created equal. Traveling around the country I see many widely marketed affiliations that in my opinion offer little to no value to the patient. What am I talking about? Specifically, I’m talking about clinical affiliations where the patient has no access to clinicians from the academic medical center (AMC) or research center that is the “source” of more sophisticated specialty care. Usually the AMC is located in a different region of the country. I’m also talking about affiliations where patients have no access to clinical trials offered by the AMC partner. If all the community hospital has done is buy access to the treatment protocols of their AMC partner, then they should be very careful about how they represent that affiliation to the public. (Some do a good job of this.) A clinical affiliation should not simply be a positioning tool for the community hospital. It may sound sexy to say you’re affiliated with one of the leading medical centers in the country, but what value does it provide your patients. (And I’ve noticed that some community hospital make the affiliation the focus of their marketing program.)

Certainly there is a benefit to community hospitals when they align with an AMC and adopt their treatment protocols in a specific area. No argument from me there. There’s even more value when the hospital’s physicians have access to the specialists at the AMC for consults. But please don’t imply that the affiliation is any more than that. And don’t be intentionally vague, leaving the consumer to assume that there is more to the affiliation than there really is. That kind of marketing is misleading and deceitful – and some of the biggest healthcare brands in our business are allowing this to happen. Their brands are for sale and become the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” in community hospital billboards and print ads. (You can see why this post lived in my head for quite a while.)

End of rant.

Respected healthcare researcher Susannah Fox says that “the most exciting innovation in health care today is people talking to one another.”  My colleague Dan Hinmon and I agree. That’s why we have created our bi-monthly webinar series on the benefits of developing online health communities. And we do more than talk about the benefits; we give a lot of how-to information that should help anyone interested in starting their own online health community.

It is our firm belief that online patient communities are one of the most powerful ways to help people connect with one another and share information. Dan Hinmon will explain how in our free March 11th webinar: “People to People: Improve health, build loyalty, and personalize your marketing with online patient communities.” I’ll be serving as the moderator for this webinar.

 You can read more about the webinar in Dan Hinmon’s recent blog post. Or you can go straight here to register.  If you can’t attend the live webinar on March 11, be sure to register anyway so we can send you the link to the recorded webinar to view at your convenience.

 If you’re considering launching an online community and want to avoid creating a ghost town, read the single most important thing you should do in this post from our presenter, Dan Hinmon: “Start your online community on the right foot.”

We hope you’ll be able join us for the March webinar.

Last Sunday I spent a lot of time in the Charlotte airport, thanks to my friends at US Airways. While I was wandering around Terminal E, I couldn’t help but notice the very prominent campaign for OrthoCarolina. The North Carolina-based independent, academic orthopedics practice (very large) has taken its “You. Improved.” campaign to the Charlotte Douglas Airport in a big way. I wish I’d taken more photos while I was there.

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OrthoCarolina is not only using airport advertising to promote their business; they are using airport advertising to promote their extensive presence on social media. This Ortho practice has a strong presence on YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Pinterest, and Google+. It is impressive! Below is a huge sign from Charlotte Douglas Airport inviting people to connect with them via these social media channels. I saw at least two of these as I wandered around. Look at the scale of the sign compared to the wheel chair at the bottom of the photo.

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Finally, here’s a video from their “You. Improved.” campaign.

On February 15 I had an encounter with US Airways and the new American Airlines. There are important lessons from my experience about the use of social media for service recovery. These apply to healthcare social media teams as well as airline teams. The interaction was an opportunity for the airlines to provide a positive brand experience and to interceded on my behalf. They failed.

In short, it is not enough to use social media to respond to customers. Your social media team has to be empowered to activate people “on the ground” or in the specific department where the complaint originated. There’s value in saying “We hear you” and “we’re sorry that you had a bad experience.” But that only goes so far. Your social media team needs to be able to help resolve negative situations by contacting people in your organization who will spring into action. If that element is missing, your social media team is limited to placating unhappy customers and perhaps further frustrating them by not having the power to resolve the situation or put a resolution into motion.

As I share this story, it is worth noting that I have been an American Advantage Member since Saturday, February 8, 1992. I have also been a US Airways Dividend Miles Member for more than two decades. I typically fly somewhere in the United States on a business trip at least three times each month.

At its foundation, this is a very simple story. I was flying US Airways from Pensacola, Florida (7:45am) through Charlotte, NC (10:18am arrival) and then on to Raleigh-Durham, NC via an 11:20am flight. I would be home by 12:30pm to spend a belated Valentine’s holiday with my family. It all went wrong when the originating flight in Pensacola was delayed due to a “mechanical issue.” That mechanical issue, the pilot would later explain, was cord showing on one of the plane’s tires. After an hour delay it was determined that it would be okay to do at least one more landing on the worn tire. Meanwhile, this little hiccup would mean that I wouldn’t get back to Raleigh until 7:05pm.

Throughout my several hours of interaction with the social media teams from US Airways and American, I gave then opportunities to turn me into a satisfied customer. It became clear that they simply did not have the ability/authority to make that happen. They were like “Siri” on my iPhone. They could dish out some information and apologize repeatedly, but they couldn’t initiate any remediation on my behalf.

Below are the Tweets, along with a few Facebook posts, that tell the story and show the exchange. I’ve pulled these from my Storify account of the events.

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It would then take American Airlines more than an hour to respond to my q

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It is Heart Month and my clients at Lexington Medical Center are attacking heart disease with everything they’ve got.

The latest television spot in the hospital’s “I Am A Heart Attack” series (this is now the third annual) is a gripping account of three individuals having heart attacks, while encouraging viewers to learn more about the risk factors for heart disease.

Part of the hospital’s new “Just Say Know to Heart Disease” campaign, the commercial directs people to a dedicated microsite where they can take a quiz that tests their knowledge about heart disease. The site also helps viewers find a physician or schedule a speaker about heart disease.

The team at Lexington Medical Center firmly believes that knowledge is one of our best weapons in the fight against heart disease. The “Just Say Know” campaign emphasizes the importance of knowing your risk factors, knowing how to lower your risk and knowing when to call your physician.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 5.33.34 PMThe campaign also places special emphasis on women’s heart health and uses the national symbol of a red dress as part of its imagery. To celebrate American Heart Month and the launch of the new heart-health campaign, the hospital is distributing red dress lapel pins for employees to wear at work. Beginning next week, employees will receive pins shaped like red dresses that feature the “Just Say Know” campaign theme.

In addition to a dedicated microsite, the marketing campaign includes brochures, banners and signage on the LMC campus, advertising, social media promotion and community educational presentations on heart disease. It should be apparent by now that the team at Lexington Medical Center doesn’t do anything halfway. When they get behind an initiative, the go all out!

If you’d like to view the entire “I Am A Heart Attack” series of commercials, click here. Enjoy!

One thing has remained constant in my career: The target audience always holds the answers and insights that are necessary for me to do my job as a marketer. To tap into those insights, listening is an essential activity.

In my blog posts and conference presentations I talk a lot about how social media channels are amazing listening platforms. Although most organizations simply use them to push out content, if used properly, they can give you direct access to insights, opinions and preferences of your brand constituents. That is something special!

I am continually reminded of the importance of listening and the risks inherent in not listening. One quick example from my own experience: This summer my firm quickly developed a campaign to launch a new emergency department for a hospital in a very rural market. The deadlines were extremely tight and there was no time for doing one-on-one interviews or focus groups with consumers in the market, let alone do creative testing once marketing concepts were developed. So we produced the campaign concepts; the clients chose the one that they found to be most compelling; and we launched it. At no point was there input from the target audience/community members.

We all loved the campaign. It treated a very serious subject with sophistication and whimsy. Graphically, it was iconic and memorable. However, within a few days of the campaign launch we learned that older residents in this rural market did not understand some of the headlines. If we had taken the time to do one evening of creative testing with the target audience we would have learned that particular nuance and quickly made tweaks to the headlines. (As it was, we made tweaks on the fly as the campaign was in the market.) This was another helpful reminder that tapping into consumer insights is a must. Even when deadlines are tight and budgets are slim, it is worth taking one night to do consumer intercepts or focus groups to gauge the effectiveness of the concepts we’re/you’re developing.

Yes, it can be expensive to do creative testing or brand perception focus groups as part of a creative development process, but these things can also be done inexpensively. Once, when I needed to test some ad concepts prior to a meeting with a hospital client, a colleague and I took a handful of $5 bills and stood in front of a coffee shop in Boston offering to pay people $5 for 5 minutes of their time reviewing ads. My colleague recorded the interviews on a video camera as I quickly shared each of the ads with patrons of the coffee shop and other people who just happened to pass by. Two hours later we had responses from 20 consumers and were able to share those insights with the client – and with our creative team. With the intercepts, we were trying to tap into the consumer’s immediate, gut reaction to the ads, and that’s exactly what we got. It cost us $100 and two hours of our time; time and money well spent. Later we went back and did more exhaustive research.

A Case in Point: Over the last six months my team and I have been working on a new branded service line campaign for a health system in New England. It has been an incredible process to be a part of. We started with focus groups in the market, focusing on specific towns within the organization’s primary service area. As you might expect, opinions of the health system vary depending on what town people live in.  Some of that is due to socio-economic factors, some is related to varying levels of familiarity with the hospital, and some of it is due to the relative proximity to other hospitals.

Don’t Forget the Internal Audience(s): We also did internal focus groups with employees of the health system to tap into their perceptions of the organization. This is so important given that these are the individuals who deliver on the brand promise, day-in and day-out. These focus groups included groups of nurses, clerical and administrative staff, physicians, senior leadership, Board members and more. Finally, we conducted a focus group that included community leaders and influentials.

Quantitative Analysis: Once we completed the focus groups we tested what we had learned through a quantitative brand perception study. The study included 500 healthcare decision-makers, segmented into 4 distinct geographic zones within the organization’s primary service area. The findings from the quantitative survey confirmed what we had learned in the qualitative portion of the assessment and supplied additional detail that would be helpful as we began development of the branded service line marketing program.

Creative Strategy: The next step was to take what we learned and develop a creative strategy that would serve as the roadmap for the creative team as they worked on potential campaign concepts. We developed 8 to 10 “approaches” or what we call “shallow holes.” Before these were too advanced, we reviewed them internally, eliminating a few, and narrowed the options down to the five that we felt were most on strategy. We then presented those five concepts to our client who then helped us narrow the field to three finalists.

Creative Testing: The three final campaign approaches were then developed more fully and presented to focus groups of female healthcare consumers from specific towns within the organization’s primary service area. (We use a propriety creative testing methodology that has served us well over the years. It avoids many of the pitfalls of typical focus group dynamics.) We also shared the campaign approaches through focus groups with hospital employees. In the end, one campaign emerged as the clear winner, although there was a strong second place contender.

Presenting to Leadership: The next step was to share the final campaign approaches and the creative testing results with the organization’s senior leadership team. I find that it is always best to present to leadership after you’ve tested the creative with the target audience. This takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the conversation. You already have in hand the opinions of the people who really matter. And, you can share nuances that you learned through the creative testing process that you will use to enhance the creative and make it even more impactful.

Consensus: Using this process, we gained consensus on the creative approach to the branded service line campaign. We included important brand constituents throughout the process; and we eliminated much of the subjectivity that can creep its way into the creative development process. Most importantly, we have integrated insights gathered from our key audiences that should make our campaign more effective!

And it all started with listening. We entered this process with a desire to gain insights from our various brand constituent groups. That desire has been present every step of the way. Once the campaign is launched, we will need to keep listening, measure responses to the marketing in various channels, and make adjustments where needed. That feedback loop is essential.

So the next time your organization is preparing to develop some new marketing initiative, ask your team to detail the ways in which they plan to listen to the target audience(s) and incorporate their feedback into your work.

One note of caution: I love the idea of Patient and Family Advisory Councils, but you should be careful not to confuse them with the audience you are trying to reach. Their feedback is valuable, but they are an internal audience and at some point they become professional consultants and advisors, rather than detached consumers. You need to supplement their feedback with input from those detached consumers, along with the opinions and perspectives of internal customers.

Here’s my story:

One night after work my wife told me about a new restaurant she had heard about from a few different people. They all said that it was something we should try. According to my wife, the restaurant’s name was “Pedro’s Grill” and it was located next to one of our favorite restaurants – Mez Contemporary Mexican.

We both love Mexican food so we decided to try Pedro’s Grill. And, from the description, its location was fairly close to our home. So I went online and Googled Pedro’s Grill and paired it with a few different towns that are near us (Durham, Morrisville, Raleigh, Cary, etc.). Nothing. Nada.

Then I Googled “new Mexican restaurants” in the area. Nothing close to a Pedro’s Grill. I checked with Scotti and she had it on good authority that it was located right next to Mez on Page Road.

Finally, we decided to drive out there and just scope out the situation. If we couldn’t find Pedro’s Grill, we could always get dinner at Mez. No big deal. So we drove out there and began looking for this new restaurant. Just past Mez was a new building that seemed to be what we were looking for. As we approached the new building the sign with the restaurant’s name came into view:

Page Road Grill,

not Pedro’s Grill.

Think about how easy it was for that miscommunication to take place. Someone rattled off the name, Page Road Grill, and Scotti heard Pedro’s Grill. She probably had Mexican food on the brain! And that was it. Why would she even need to clarify things? She heard Pedro’s Grill and had no reason to doubt what she heard.

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 9.01.17 AMMy point is that I see so much miscommunication take place in business because people don’t slow down and take the time to clarify what is being communicated. “So, let me play back what I heard from you.” “Based on this conversation, here are my action items.” For good communication to occur it takes a concerted effort. One of the great challenges with communication is that we know what it is that we are trying to communicate. The listener does not. this is particularly relevant with email communication. My advice: be clear and direct. And if you think there’s a chance for miscommunication, have a face-to-face conversation or pick up the phone! I’ve seen emails flying back and forth over a simple miscommunication that could have easily been cleared up with a quick two minute phone conversation. No doubt you’ve seen the same thing happen.

With that I will say adiós.

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